Health Close-up -- Cheryl Wheeler Duncan: Surviving a Life-Threatening Accident

A Stunt Woman’s Greatest Stunt: Saving Herself

By Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW At 51, Cheryl Wheeler Duncan may not leap tall buildings at a single bound, but the Texas mother of two teenage girls comes close. Here are just a few highlights: She has jumped 60 feet off a train trestle as a train crashed into a police car and exploded behind her, slid 30 feet down a laundry chute with a ticking bomb following her, and just last December jumped a car off a dock and stayed submerged in a lake for over 5 minutes.   Okay, these exploits are not a daily occurrence, but in her 27-year career as a stuntwoman, Cheryl has doubled for many Hollywood A-listers including Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz, Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner. Laughing, Cheryl brags, “I can still outrun a 25-year-old.” Yet in 1989, four years into her stuntwoman career, it wasn’t initially clear Cheryl would walk again, let alone run, after a horrific accident on the set of Back to the Future II. A wire she was attached to 20 feet in the air was prematurely released, flinging her to the concrete below. “I was basically killed,” she reports, adding, “I wasn’t breathing. They had to revive me on the set.” A shattered brow bone, jaw, cheekbone, wrists, and right hand necessitated five surgeries in two years. Some of the uber-lowlights from this period: being told she’d need an artificial wrist (this didn’t happen), and having her jaw re-broken and wired shut for six weeks.

The industry gossip that her career was effectively over (stuntwomen have to hang from things!), combined with being unable to work for a year sent her into an emotional tailspin. “Growing up with a chauvinistic father who never even let my mom drive, I’d based my life around proving I was every bit as capable as my five brothers,” she says.

This determination had led her into martial arts at age 15. Soon she was traveling the world for kickboxing tournaments, scoring a World Title in 1987. For a few years, she did both kickboxing and movie stunt work before settling on the latter as her main gig. As she puts it, “Faking getting hit versus really getting hit – there wasn’t much of a contest!”

Her post-accident injuries and depression after the Back to the Future II disaster couldn’t smother the drive born of her determination to prove her dad wrong. Rather, Cheryl hurled herself into both physical therapy and nutrition. An intense detox regimen helped her recover from all the reconstructive surgeries, meds, and anesthesia. She became so passionate about the importance of a good diet and the right supplements that she earned her certification as a nutritionist. Bonus: She married Dr. Lindsay Duncan, CN, ND, the neuropathic doctor who introduced her to this healthy new world.

Now the two run Genesis Today, http://superfoods.genesistoday.com, a pioneer in the super foods industry. Cheryl says, “I believe the accident was a blessing in disguise because it opened me up to so much about health and nutrition I didn’t know about.” Proper nutrition and exercise helps her look and feel young. “I’m a big believer in eating greens, hydrating as much as possible, and not eating late at night,” she says. She also keeps her mind active. “As we get older we need new challenges,” she maintains. These challenges take the form of part time stunt doubling, recently acquiring her pilot’s license -- and oh yes, maintaining the ability to outrun any 25-year-old! So, did she finally get that chauvinistic father to appreciate her prowess? Cheryl says, “Not to my face but my mother said he bragged about me all the time when I wasn’t around!” Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including "The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists” (Adams, 2010).  Her website is www.marriedfaq.com. 
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